Ian Grech, BFE, editor of Netflix’s latest Documentary, 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible debuted on Netflix in November. 14 Peaks follows fearless Nepali mountaineer Nimsdai Purja who embarks on a seemingly impossible quest to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months. This project was no easy feat for Ian as editing and piecing together Nimsdai’s extraordinary story took over eight months to complete.
Throughout the editing process, Ian collaborated closely with director Torquil Jones to complete the challenging task of telling Nimsdai’s story of climbing 14 peaks without it feeling monotonous. Ian’s goal was to showcase the trials and tribulations of each peak while piecing it together in a way that was both exciting and true to the story. It was also Ian’s job to elaborate on the character of Nimsdai to show the audience what makes him the man that he is and what his motivations were for completing such a life-threatening task.
He spoke with ProductionHUB about the project and how he sorted through tons of footage to make his creative vision come to life.
PH: Hi Ian! How are you? What have the past few months been like for you?
Ian Grech: It’s been pretty surreal! Off the back of 14 Peaks, which was a really exciting project, I went onto a primetime show in the UK, while at the same time moving into a new home and having our first child. Needless to say, we are celebrating quite a few things at the moment!
PH: I’d love to learn more about your journey as an editor and colorist. What made you pursue this career path?
Ian Grech: I’ve always found the ability to discover stories in the cutting room fascinating, along with utilizing the tools available to elevate that story further. I’m from both a technical and creative background, originally working in the school theater as a lighting tech.
Being a musician in my spare time, I found similarities with using music and video editing software, so wanted to pursue that further. I specialized in post-production at university; This is where I began to find a real interest in not only the technical side of the craft, but also a love of weaving a story together, as it can be a real game of Jenga!
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
Ian Grech: There are definitely a few that come to mind; I really enjoyed reading the books of Walter Murch (Editor of Apocalypse Now/Talented Mr. Ripley) – they were a fascinating insight into the theoretical side of editing, and some of his theories still come to mind on a daily basis in the edit suite. He is also a fantastic sound designer, and it’s quite rare to do both roles at that level, so I found it quite an inspiration when it came to me deciding to work on certain projects as both Editor and Colorist – although I focus more on editing these days, it made me realize that I didn’t have to limit myself to just the one role.
Another inspiration is the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. She’s simply a genius Editor with an incredible repertoire. There’s always a beautiful rhythm to her films, ranging from the nuanced to the brash, and successfully conveying the right tone and emotion is everything in editing.
In terms of documentary film-makers, Louis Theroux has always had a great ability to tell a fascinating story through the means of straight-forward conversations in front of camera as opposed to the traditional method of sit-down interviews. You feel that he has gained trust with the individuals, it never feels forced and the viewer feels like they are on the journey with Louis, learning alongside him.
PH: Can you share some of your work experience? How has that made you the professional you are today?
Ian Grech: My earlier days as a staff editor were primarily based in live events, particularly sports (Olympics, Formula One, Soccer World Cups). With its fast-turnaround, high-pressure nature, you build a discipline in organization and decision making, as there’s usually little time to cut the piece you’re working on, yet the standard still needs to be high. This made the move into long-form projects easier for me, as although it’s quite different in terms of length of time on projects, pacing and overall tone, having the ability to organize my projects more efficiently allowed me the time to apply a more analytical approach to the storytelling.
I’ve always found editing to be an interesting combination of both sides of the brain, both the creative and the analytical. It was certainly one of the reasons I enjoyed editing 14 Peaks, as it really worked both sides!
PH: Let’s talk about 14 Peaks—it’s a phenomenal story (and film!) How did you get involved?
Ian Grech: I’ve known the director (Torquil Jones) for around 15 years. We worked together on a number of projects and have a great working relationship. He gave me a call after we finished another documentary in 2019 and we had a chat about 14 Peaks. Torquil was telling me the story of Nimsdai Purja (“Nims”) who had recently completed Project Possible and his reasons behind it; I found it fascinating, and not really an opportunity you could say no to.
PH: Can you share a bit of the creative process you had in your mind going into the project?
Ian Grech: Approaching any project, you have to figure out the focus of the story. One of the challenges of 14 Peaks was that there was so much story, from the team climbing the 14 highest mountains in the world, to Nims’ military background, to funding the project, to his family relationships and his ailing mother… and they were all integral to the overall narrative. As well as that, it had already been decided that this was going to be a feature-length film, and it was recommended to be around 100 minutes, so the challenge was to unpack all of this in the timeframe, while keeping it captivating.
Fortunately, there were amazing things that happened on Project Possible; On the first mountain, there’s an audacious rescue, with the team going back up one of the most dangerous mountains in the world after summiting, then being hit by a huge snowstorm on mountain two, another attempted rescue on mountain three… and then they tackle Mount Everest. And they would still have ten mountains to climb with their own stories attached.
There were also some important parts of the story that were not filmed, such as Nims being shot in the UK Special Forces and falling 300ft down one of the mountains after summiting, so we had animations made for those scenes, which added another dimension to the storytelling.
Another example is when Nims gets High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which is a lack of oxygen to the brain and you start hallucinating. We had to illustrate something happening in the mind, so Torquil came to me and said “we want to make it look like Nims is losing his mind… off you go!” A couple of influences came to mind for that sequence, such as scenes from an Adam Curtis Documentary, Hypernormalisation; Curtis uses sections of old news reels to an almost surreal effect, so I decided to use vintage mountaineering footage against modern pictures, as well as combining vivid colors overlapping visual effects to get a sense of a nightmarish psychological battle going on. It’s a pretty psychedelic sequence, so I think I covered Torquil’s brief!
PH: There must’ve been a ton of footage—what was the process for editing? How did you make the decisions to showcase more footage for some of the climbs vs others?
Ian Grech: We had over 100 hours of footage that was just from Nims and his team, not including any of his backstory or interviews shot by Torquil, so maybe 120-130 hours in total.
We had a preliminary interview with Nims before we started editing the film where we could find out some finer points of the story. Torquil and I, alongside the film’s writer Gabriel Clarke, were able to make decisions on how to chapterize the main story. Our edit assistant Charlotte ingested the footage for the edit and Alit, a camera operator on a couple of the climbs, assisted with organizing the order of the climbs and Nepali translations ahead of me editing.
I created index cards of the chapters and placed them in order on our edit suite wall, so Torquil and I could see the film as a whole and make further decisions on the narrative, moving the order of the cards around, before I would begin first cuts. As the edit progressed, if we discovered additional angles to our chapters or received feedback that would alter the narrative, we would refer back to our wall of index cards and physically move chapters around more before reworking anything in the edit.
Due to the nature of some of the climbs, we didn’t have an even balance of footage per mountain. For example, for Annapurna, we had around 10 hours of footage and for other mountains, Nims and the team were laser-focused on completing their climbs rather than filming – at one point they attempted three mountains in 48 hours – so in those instances we would only have a handful of shots available. It created the interesting challenge of ‘how do give each mountain the air time it deserves?’ We made the decision to cut some mountains shorter than others to balance out those sections of the story. Cutting over 120 hours of footage into a tightly-packed 100 minute film was no easy feat but with utilizing all of those methods, we ended up with something we’re all proud of.
PH: What was collaborating with Torquil like? How did you lean on each other to create something special?
Ian Grech: I love working with Torquil. There’s always a great level of trust when we work together and he’s open to collaborate on ideas, so there are always ideas bouncing around in the edit, which helps elevate the story further and further.
PH: An incredibly important storytelling aspect of the film was allowing the audience to get to know Nims better. How did you do that with the footage you chose?
Ian Grech: With Project Possible being such an audacious idea, the key aspect of getting to know Nims better was to discover the man beyond the mountain climber and explore what makes him the man he is. We introduced other key members in his life: his wife, Suchi, his mother, and his brother. His family were able to show Nims’ human side, away from the ultra-confident man you see on the mountains. Also, as one of the reasons for doing Project Possible was to raise more awareness of the Nepalese climbing community, we hear lots from the other Project members – Mingma David, Geljen, Lakpa Dendi and Gesman – as they gave great insight into what makes Nims such a great leader.
PH: Out of curiosity, did you have any favorite footage or sequence? What was it and why?
Ian Grech: My favorite sequence is the chapter on K2. It contains a great riff between Reinhold Messner – a westerner who was the first to climb all 14 8000ers – and Nims – a Nepali, soon to be the fastest – two very different climbers yet sharing the same philosophy on why they climb, all grouped together with a fantastic track from the film’s composer, Nainita Desai. Nims’ positive mindset and philosophy is the driving force behind 14 Peaks, but K2 showcased everything the film is about.
PH: In your opinion, what are some critical storytelling elements that can transcend a story beyond what you might see at face value?
Ian Grech: Even though I’ve edited projects I don’t initially know too much about – for example I’m not a sports fan, nor did I know anything about mountaineering before 14 Peaks – I place myself in the shoes of the partner of the individual who chooses to watch the documentary. I think “what would they want to take from this?” as there’s always a fear of closing the door on audiences if you make a story too niche or too broad. It’s a fine balancing act, but if you’re able to underpin even the most technical story on something relatable to everybody, you’ll reach a much wider audience and have an overall much more interesting film. I found 14 Peaks works well in this instance; Project Possible is the catalyst for discovering this fascinating story on not only one individual, but a philosophy that we can all take into our daily lives.
PH: What are you hoping viewers take away from the story?
Ian Grech: I’m hoping viewers will enjoy learning about the importance of an extremely under-represented community, but also the power of self-belief and having a positive mindset and determination to make things happen for yourself.
Take a look at the incredible trailer, here: